Art Lends Deeper Meaning to Recreation Architecture

“Guardian” sculpture outside the Southern Area Aquatic and Recreation Complex, Brandywine, Md. [Photo by Don Cunningham]
“Guardian” sculpture outside the Southern Area Aquatic and Recreation Complex, Brandywine, Md. [Photo by Don Cunningham]

Throughout history, the relationship between architecture and art has been intimate and powerful. It is a relationship that survives to this day because of the communicative power of both forms of artistic expression. Art gives cultural significance to architecture, allowing a structure to have deeper meaning beyond its intended function and purpose. Introduction of art in a public setting not only enriches the quality of the space, it reflects the soul of the community.

Over the years, our firm has seized on the opportunity to integrate art into the design of recreational facilities. Fortunately, some of the public building projects — such as the University of Houston-Campus Recreation & Wellness Center and the Long Bridge Park in Arlington, Va. — have a public art budget. For projects that do not have an art budget allocated, we identify feature areas in the building — perhaps a tile mural or an accent wall — that enhance the design quality of the facility. Examples include the "Forest Wall" at the University of New Hampshire's Hamel Recreation Center and the "Wave" tile mural at Wilson Aquatic Center in Washington, D.C.

“Family Tree/Community Circle” hanging scultures in SAARC atrium. [Photo by Don Cunningham]“Family Tree/Community Circle” hanging scultures in SAARC atrium. [Photo by Don Cunningham]


The art integration process
The Southern Area Aquatic and Recreation Complex, known as SAARC, is a 78,000-square-foot multigenerational facility in Brandywine, Md. Program spaces include community/multipurpose rooms, an aquatic center, a two-court gymnasium, a fitness and weights area, an elevated track, and support spaces. The project site is located on early 1900s farmland in Prince George's County, which became forested over the years. Our client was the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation. Our firm, the architect/designer, worked with Coakley Williams Construction, the builder, as the design-build team.

The building design focuses on the relationship of the spaces and the site. The building layout allows strong visual connection to the surrounding forest, especially a 175-year-old willow oak specimen tree. The central atrium acts as a circulation spine with access to the community spaces and the high-volume recreation spaces. The "branch" steel columns marching from the entry and into the atrium echo the surrounding forested site.

After the schematic design was completed, we started our search and solicitation of local artists in the D.C. metropolitan area, with an art budget limited to 1 percent of the project construction cost. Working with MNCPPC's Arts and Cultural Heritage Division, we developed the criteria for the selection and evaluation of artists. We identified three possible project locations — one outdoor and two indoor — as suitable for art installations. We also stated three clear premises for the artists to focus on in their proposal submission — community, health/wellness and site/nature. We interviewed close to 20 artists, and each of three chosen artists was given a budget to finalize their proposals.

The outdoor piece was awarded to Judy Sutton Moore for the "Guardian." The 22-foot-high stainless-steel sculpture was placed between the building and its parking transition. Fabricated in Pennsylvania, this sculpture was inspired by the site's 175-year-old willow oak tree.

At the entry lobby, Heidi Lippman was commissioned to work on her 12-foot-tall-by-20-foot-wide mosaic titled "Waters Promise." The cut-glass mosaic of different colors, textures and sizes was Heidi's interpretation of health and wellness using the forest as a metaphor. The mosaic panels were fabricated in Germany, and glass was purposely used so onlookers can see their reflection and become part of the forest mosaic.

The central atrium space was awarded to Martha Jackson Jarvis. Martha's "Family Tree/Community Circle" aluminum hanging sculptures, fabricated in her Maryland studio, celebrate the family as a building block of a community.

Information on the art pieces can be accessed by the community using digital display information kiosks in the building atrium.

Artist Tim Glover’s leaf sculptures outside and inside the University of Houston-Campus Recreation & Wellness Center. [Photos by Tim Hursley]Artist Tim Glover’s leaf sculptures outside and inside the University of Houston-Campus Recreation & Wellness Center. [Photos by Tim Hursley]


Accommodating artwork
Prior to fabrication of the art pieces, each artist was required to submit shop drawings. We assisted in the coordination with our consulting team for special lighting requirements or structural load capacities and made some adjustments to the building details to accommodate the artwork.

We visited the fabrication shop and required production photo updates prior to any installation. During installation, each artist collaborated with the design team to make final location adjustments and to make art pieces work better in the designated space. Interviews with the artists, as well as those involved in the fabrication and installation of the art pieces, were documented.

Such attention to detail allowed the selected artforms to enhance the SAARC's larger purpose, while adding cultural meaning to the place and value to the community — which should be the goals of any art integration effort. Like recreation itself, art in public buildings can serve a higher mission in bringing our diverse communities together.

Five recommendations

Based on its experience with the Southern Area Aquatic and Recreation Complex, Hughes Group Architects recommends the following five steps toward successfully integrating art and architecture:

• Establish the art budget.
• Establish criteria and identify location(s).
• Guide artists but allow them to express themselves.
• Integrate the artist(s) early in the project planning.
• Maintain involvement throughout the entire process.


This article originally appeared in the July|August 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Art lends deeper meaning to recreation architecture." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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